This past week, the University of Notre Dame filed a lawsuit over the contentious contraception mandate that requires employers to provide health insurance to employees, including birth control, as part of the Affordable Care Act. About a year and a half since the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of Obamacare, there have been many lawsuits filed over individual policies in the law.
This is the second time that the university has filed a challenge to the policy. It first filed an identical suit in January, but had the case dismissed by a federal judge who ruled that the Notre Dame did not have the legal authority to sue because it would not be impacted by the law due to a delay in the law’s implementation.
The university has made it clear that the motivation behind the suit is not taking away access to contraception, but is to protect the institution’s rights to religious freedom. “Our abiding concern in both the original filing … and this re-filing has been Notre Dame’s freedom — and indeed the freedom of many religious organizations in this country — to live out a religious mission," said Notre Dame President Reverend John Jenkins.
Central to this case is the dispute over whether employers should be required to cover contraception for their employees' health insurance policies. The Affordable Care Act requires that most employers provide free birth control for their employees. Churches and other houses of worship are exempt from the law, but the fate of religious-based institutions such as the University of Notre Dame and Boston College has yet to be determined.
Notre Dame officials had been working with the Obama administration to formulate a plan that would allow the university to skirt the birth control mandate, but said it is doubtful such a deal could be reached without the university having to forfeit its rights and partake in a program that is inconsistent with Catholic teaching.
The Thomas More Law Center, a Christian-based public interest law firm, has said there are currently 86 lawsuits attacking Obamacare on religious grounds. Forty-one of those cases, according to the firm, involve Catholic nonprofit organizations such as the University of Notre Dame that disagree with the birth control mandate. The other 46 cases have been filed by for-profit organizations whose owners argue the contraception policy violates their religious freedom.
Two of the cases involving for-profit organizations have been taken up by the Supreme Court. The two organizations, Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., claim that they should be exempt from covering employee contraception on religious grounds. While not direct challenges to the contraception mandate, the cases do call to question whether companies owned by individuals who object to the provision on religious grounds can be exempt from the requirement.
Women’s rights groups have said a ruling in favor of the companies would make key preventive measures inaccessible for women. "If the Supreme Court decides for bosses rather than for women's health, far-reaching consequences could result," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. "Women could find their bosses not only interfering in their private reproductive healthcare decisions, but other care as well."
The decision could also have huge ramifications on future interpretation of the free exercise of religion clause in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Historically limited to individuals, a ruling in favor of companies could open the door to corporations being given religious rights. The case comes three years after the Citizens United v. FEC ruling in which the court endorsed broad First Amendment free speech rights for corporations in campaign finance based on the notion of corporate personhood.Featured photo courtesy of FlickrLickr/Flickr.